Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She hosts the history podcast “Past Present” and created the podcast “A12.” The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Wednesday night, Sean Hannity was positively giddy.
He opened his prime-time show on Fox News with the declaration that it had been “a great day for the United States, for the country, the President. A lousy day for the corrupt, do-nothing for three years radical, extreme, socialist Democrats and their top allies known as the media mob.”
Why were Hannity and his allies celebrating? Because, they claimed, the public hearings on impeachment were so boring.
That charge rippled through right-wing circles after the hearings before the House Intelligence Committee ended on Wednesday afternoon. Breitbart weighed in early on, declaring a “first hour fail,” finding “little excitement” in the opening testimony. Even Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, elected by the people of North Carolina to protect and defend the Constitution, yawned away his duties, declaring it was “hard for me to stay awake” during the inquiry into presidential misconduct.
That’s a surprising reaction to the opening day of public impeachment hearings, which featured two Ukraine experts testifying that they were caught between official US policy toward Ukraine and President Donald Trump’s desire to force the country’s leaders to open corruption investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival.
The morning’s testimony even contained the bombshell that a new witness will testify to overhearing a phone call that made explicit that the President elevated his personal interests over national interest.
But the “boring” charge is less surprising if we think of it as part of a broader strategy to discredit and devalue the hearings. For decades now, right-wing media consumers have learned that sources they’d consider trustworthy roll out their ideology in slick trappings and with bombastic claims, and maybe a little bit of titillation thrown in for good measure.
This is why the boring charge isn’t solely a claim about entertainment: it sends a message about who viewers should trust, and who they should view with suspicion – a lesson that helps explain why a huckster like Donald Trump has done so well with conservative voters.
The biggest threat to Donald Trump’s presidency has always been independent actors with inside knowledge unwilling to repeat the administration line. So Fox News, which for the past three years has been working as a propaganda arm of the administration, has to find a way to undermine the evidence that the hearings will expose the American people to in the coming days.
Public impeachment hearings leave the network in a bit of a bind. The last thing a network like Fox News wants is credible, well-credentialed officials with access and experience testifying against the President. But there’s every reason to believe that Americans, including regular Fox watchers, will tune into the hearings
After all, nearly 20 million Americans watched former FBI director James Comey testify about his abrupt firing in 2017. Millions more are likely to tune in to the impeachment hearings, which are airing on NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, C-SPAN, NPR and all the cable news networks.
All the cable news networks, including Fox. The network can’t afford to skip the hearings: their viewers are interested, and if they can’t watch the hearings on Fox, they’ll tune in somewhere else. So the network did what it could, flashing context on screen when witnesses were introduced in order to undercut their testimony.
For instance, when Ambassador Bill Taylor, a Vietnam veteran with a Bronze Star and decades of diplomatic service under his belt, began his opening statement, Fox News flashed three statements on the screen: one noting that President Trump had called Taylor a “Never Trumper”; one noting the White House had dismissed Taylor’s earlier private testimony as “triple hearsay”; and one noting that Republicans had said “Taylor had no firsthand knowledge about Ukraine aid.” (A more churlish writer might note that those three statements amount to triple hearsay.) Further, Taylor was asked directly if he was a “never Trumper” and he said no.
Undercutting witnesses who present evidence about President Trump’s bad acts is one way of spinning live hearings. The “boring” charge represents another.
And the “boring” charge is particularly interesting, because it cuts to the heart of the Trump presidency, conservative media, and the links between the two.
As background, it’s important to note that, in its earliest iterations in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative media was boring. Sure, it was innovative – conservatives experimented with radio and television shows, magazines, newspapers – but their audiences were largely limited to the dyed-in-the-wool right.
But starting with some local shows in the 1970s and 1980s and, in 1988, the national debut of Rush Limbaugh, the right learned to package ideology with entertainment. Limbaugh succeeded not only because he was conservative, but because he was funny, fast-paced and shocking.
Roger Ailes, who produced Limbaugh’s short-lived television program, brought those same values to Fox News when it launched in 1996. Yes, the content had to be conservative. But it also had to be entertaining: flashy graphics, punchy guests, attractive female hosts whose legs were fully on display thanks to glass desktops.
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For all their hosts’ eye rolling and declarations that the hearings are a snoozefest, Fox News will continue to air them. They know their viewers are too politically engaged to ignore the impeachment inquiry.
But they also trust that they can signal, through on-screen chyrons attacking the witnesses and on-air hosts downplaying their entertainment value, that even as evidence of the president’s wrongdoing mounts, it’s still a good day for the United States, the President and Fox News.